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Cooked Cats Are Causing Chaos

Mark Tilly and Pav Suy / Khmer Times Share:
Some frogs and birds were for sale at this stall on National Road 6. KT/ Fabien Mouret

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but for the meat vendors along National Road 6 in Kampong Cham province’s Bantheay district, a picture of their stock posted on Facebook cost them $100.
“The district officials came and they confiscated all our meat because they said it was socially disruptive,” said 55-year-old vendor Srey Mach, who did not want to give her real name.
The picture, posted by a Khmer Times photographer, featured three dead cats, cooked and charred, hanging by meat hooks on the side of the road waiting to be sold.
The vendors also sell a variety of wild birds, frogs and fish from the surrounding area.
The selling of wild birds is illegal according to forestry law, however the vendors said the authorities specifically confiscated their meat because of the cats they were selling.  
Ms. Mach sits at her stall surrounded by her neighbors, all wary to talk. Trucks roar past as she shows us a list of vendors who met with the district governor.
“The district officials came four or five days ago. If we’re caught selling the cats, we’re fined one million riel [about $250],” she said.
Both the vendors and local residents Khmer Times spoke to said the district authorities came because the photos had been shared online.
“We received a warning from district officials, but they’re just domestic cats.”
She and the other vendors along that same stretch of road said they buy the meat from scavengers and hunters from Chealea village, about one kilometer east of the stalls.
The scavengers hunt the cats indiscriminately from a variety of sources. Some are shot by hunters, others are captured alive before being drowned by the vendors and then cooked.
Some cats are also collected from Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey garbage dump, before being transported to rural areas as the capital’s residents have no taste for cat.
A 32-year-old farmer from Chealea village, who gave his name only as Sopheap, said many of the vendors sell the cats, claiming them to be wild fishing cats.
The species is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“The people in Phnom Penh hate eating cats, so they get brought here and they tell the buyer that it is a fishing cat,” he said.
The vendors say cat meat can fetch about 25,000 riel (about $6) per kilogram, sold mostly to Cambodian and Vietnamese travelers, many of whom believe the meat provides extra health benefits.
Batheay district police chief Sam Nal said it was the vendors’ false claims that caused the authorities to confiscate the meat.
“It is a business where they cheat, lying to the people from other areas by saying they are fishing cats or wildlife meat, when it is actually dog and cat meat,” he said.
“These kinds of businesses deserve to be cracked down on because it is a cheating business.”
Mr. Nal also denied the vendors’ claim that authorities threatened to fine them if they were caught selling cat meat.
“That is not the case. We never do that to them and we never want to have problems with them. What we want is that they do business by not lying to the customers,” he said.
However, it is a trade that the vendors rely on to survive, according to 30-year-old Srey Oun, also unwilling to reveal her real name, her three children sprawled around her after just returning from primary school.
“They don’t let me sell the cats and the district authorities are trying to stop us from selling the ducks as well,” she said.
“If we get caught the district authorities said they will come and tear down our stalls.”
Ms. Oun, who has been selling meat for 10 years, says she has tried to get work at a nearby garment factory, but the factory sets the age limit for employment at 25.
“The factory does not accept me because of my age, which is why I do this,” she said.
Dean Lague, a technical adviser for Wildlife Alliance’s Wildlife Response and Rescue Team, said that all the cats they have identified being sold have been domestic.
However, he said the trade’s indiscriminate nature means other, more vulnerable species of cat could be caught up in the trade.
“It is possible they could be leopard cats, which are of similar appearance and size as domestic cats,” he said.
“Although they are classified as a common species here, their numbers are not sufficient to allow the traders there to sell them in the quantities sold from that area.”
He said it would be almost impossible for the cats being sold to be fishing cats due to their scarcity.
“Wild fishing cats are unfortunately so rare the team is lucky if it comes across one of them a year including in even the remote areas they are most likely to inhabit,” he said.
Mr. Lague said the wildlife team frequently patrols the area in an attempt to stop the vendors from selling the meat, but admits it is difficult to take action against them because it is the vendor’s sole source of income.
“It’s fairly clear they don’t have any ability to pay a fine and having them detained in custody to attend court doesn’t reflect their level of offending or circumstances,” he said.
Mr. Sopheap said that since the authorities’ crackdown last week, many of the hunters and scavengers from Chealea village have moved to Thailand in search of work, now that their business has dried up.
Mr. Lague said his organization tries to educate vendors on forestry law and what animals they are legally allowed to sell.   
He said, however, their focus was mostly on the wildlife they hunted since the majority of cats being sold were domestic.
“Team members take the time to ensure the traders are educated regarding the forestry law and also the general environmental impact their trading is having,” he said.
“Education provided is directed towards the wildlife trade and not cats or other domestic species sold there, although treating all animals in a humane manner is always covered.
“Despite what some traders might claim, to date none have been found to be wild cats.”

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